Did God intentionally choose to make himself vulnerable in order to have a creation that could love and serve him? This is the discussion I started in my last post: Worshiping a Great Big Vulnerable God.
One tweet I received in response basically said, “Lovers are vulnerable. If God is infinitely love, then he is infinitely vulnerable.” There is truth to this. In the sense that God’s love for us makes him vulnerable because it causes him pain when we make decisions that hurt ourselves and others, I don’t think most Christians would disagree. But I intend to push the envelop a little farther than asking whether God’s love makes simply him emotionally vulnerable.
The real questions is: Did God intentionally order the universe in a way that wove risk into its fabric? Many will immediately say, “NO! This diminishes his sovereignty.” But I think that’s only the case if God didn’t choose to make such a world.
God’s ecosystem and free-range humans
The creation story puts Adam and Eve into a carefully created environment. And although they are given dominion over everything in the garden, they are still part of this intricate ecosystem. Their “dominion” or power over creation is a gift and display of trust (and vulnerability) on God’s part. In order to empower humans the way he intended, he put an entire creation that he has called “good” at risk.
I think we need to understand creation as a complex ecosystem where human (and on some level angelic) decisions have an outcome larger than the immediate consequences to them personally. It isn’t until we really appreciate how delicately woven together creation is that we can understand the peril involved. Obviously we know that Adam and Eve’s decision to eat of the forbidden fruit cast everything into chaos. It wasn’t an act of disobedience that resulted in punishment for them alone; it was an act of rebellion that affected everything, and would lead God to despair that he had ever created mankind.
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen. 6:5–6)
Give us a king!
In the eighth chapter of 1 Samuel, Israel comes to the prophet Samuel demanding a king like all the other nations. Currently operating as a theocracy, Samuel serves as an intermediary between the Lord and Israel. Samuel immediately takes their request as a personal rejection, but God sees it for what it is—a rejection of him. In one of Scripture’s saddest passages, God tells Samuel:
Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them. —1 Samuel 8:8–9
So Samuel warns them of the consequences of this choice:
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.
He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Samuel is merely communicating the potential problems he sees in other rulers. And he’s right; Israel’s future kings will do all these things. The problem is that even Samuel doesn’t know the terrors that will be unleashed when Israel gets what they’re asking for. The rest of the Old Testament is one horror story after another directly tied to Israel’s decision to adopt human sovereigns.
As is the case with any of us most of the time, Israel doesn’t heed Samuel’s warning and again requests a king. God tells Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.” This simple ten-word sentence is both a concession and a judgement. God fully knows that the result of this request will be thousands of years of bloodshed, decadence, idolatry, and mayhem.
So why does God let them do it?
The dangers of human autonomy
When you read the Old Testament from the eighth chapter of 1 Samuel onward in light of God’s decision to allow Israel a king, it’s eye opening. The consequences of this choice are catastrophic and wreak havoc on individuals who were completely removed and innocent of this choice.
It seems throughout the Bible that God is committed to respecting the free-will decisions of people to whom he gave dominion. Even after he allows Israel a king, he doesn’t abandon them. He works with them within their chosen framework. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t step in occasionally with a heavy hand, but that, by-and-large, he respects the power he entrusted them with—even when it runs contrary to his will. And yes, we still experience the natural—and sometimes divine—repercussions for their (and our own) choices.
God’s intention to have a perfectly aligned creation where humans work harmoniously in a loving submissive posture with him required choice. Although that choice has been abused, God hasn’t revoked it—in the same way that he hasn’t canceled angelic free will despite the great cosmic rebellion. Eventually a final judgment will come due for the decisions made by the universe’s free agents, but it will be because of their freedom and not at the expense of it.
This doesn’t undermine God’s sovereignty—in fact, it accentuates it. God isn’t powerful because he orchestrates everything. He’s powerful because, in spite of our worst decisions, his plans will still come to pass. His genius is seen in his ability to fashion goodness out of disobedience and struggle (Romans 8:28), not in his willingness to engineer trouble in order to do good.
The interconnectedness of God’s creation
Next time we’ll talk about theodicy and the tangled web of human volition. As a teaser, let me say this:
Evangelicalism has accepted a universal belief that everything comes down to our individual relationship with God. We see sin as a disobedient action, but don’t see the universal implications of our individual transgressions. If the garden of Eden shows us anything, I think it’s that our disobedience has an effect on the world that is more troubling than we can even begin to understand.
The chaos theory suggests that the flap of a butterflies wings might create a typhoon two continents away. How much more exponentially damaging might our simple acts of daily rebellion be? I look forward to covering that next time.